Jews helped cause French conquest of Algeria

This interesting post by Nouri at The Moor Next Door blog about the history of Jews and Christians in Algeria explains that Jewish merchants provided the pretext for the French to take control of Algeria :

In Algiers Jews gained some wealth, certainly enough to lay some of the economic ground work for the French invasion in 1830. Two Jewish merchants of the Houses of Bushnaq and Backri sold large amounts of grain to France from 1793-1798. The French state had not paid back its debt to the merchants (it was between 7,000,000 and 8,000,000 francs) by the time the Napoleonic wars were finished. The House of Backri, being in debt to the Algerian (Ottoman) state itself, convinced the Dey that the in order for its debt to the state to be repaid, the Dey had to force the French state to pay its debt back to him. The Restoration government refused to pay Backri back for years, believing that the original circumstances of the dealings with the Algerians were ethically murky and not want to pay back the debts of the Republic. This set the stage for unfriendly Franco-Algerian relations that would ultimately be set off by the infamous fly swatter incident of 1827*, among other factors.”

Strangely absent from Nouri’s account is any sense that the Jews, forced to live as oppressed and insecure dhimmis, welcomed the French with open arms. (Nouri is wrong to say that few Jews accepted French nationality under the Decret Cremieux. The entire Jewish community agreed to submit to French civil law and became French.)

Nouri tends to gloss over the reasons for their mass exodus in 1961 -62. While trying to remain neutral during the civil war the Jews were caught in the crossfire. (In the tragic case of the Levy family of Algiers, the socialist father was murdered by the OAS, while the son was killed by the FLN).

And Nouri omits one major cause of the Jewish exodus: the great synagogue of Algiers was ransacked by the FLN in December 1960, the Torah scrolls profaned and ‘Death to the Jews’ and swastikas daubed on the walls. The terrified Jews feared a rerun of the pogrom of Constantine in 1934. They did not need to be expelled to abandon personal and communal property in 70 different communities for which they have never been compensated. Many synagogues have been turned into mosques.

Today there are fewer than 50 Jews (not 1,000) living in Algeria and no organised Jewish life to speak of.

*The French consul was slapped by the Dey using a fly swatter

Read post in full

Nouri adds this comment:

The statement that “few” Jews accepted citizenship is a typo. It was originally “with few Muslims but many Jews” but when I pasted the piece over from Word it was cut off. It still reads this way in the Word file.

However, this did not all happen at once. It happened over several years. The second decree was more comprehensive and resulted in more Jewish citizens.

The status of dhimmitude is presumed to be well known, as it was the status of all non-Muslims in Ottoman and Islamic lands at the time.

As for “glossing over” aspects of the war, you are correct. However, neutrality in that struggle was perceived widely as siding with the opposite side. It does not surprise me that they were attacked from both sides (such is the fate of the weak and unarmed). It is not a post meant to survey every aspect of the war or the Jewish community; it is an overview. The
abandonment of Algeria by the Jews came at about the same time as it did with the rest of the European community (and Europeanized communities, such as the native Jews and harkis), and I think it would be unfair to go into great detail about the specific incidents that led the Jews to leave without doing the same for the Europeans.

As for “compensation”; I don’t really see what they can be compensated for. What was taken from them? If they abandoned it, they left it to be filled. Feeling insecure and running away does not entitle one to lost property. The idea that they should be compensated
suggests that they were forcibly expelled by the state. I’m not sure where this kind of compensation would come from or for what reason. Though, I did mention this in the post. And as for the numbers of Jews in the country, the only estimates I have seen have been around 1000 (plus or minus). So, if you can give a citation for your figure, I would be grateful.

Bataween replies:

Dhimmitude: I should have thought a mention of ‘dhimmitude’ was essential to any overview of non-Muslim minorities.
Compensation: I am no lawyer but it is doubtful that a group of Algerian Jews would have brought a case for compensation of $144 million in 2005 if they had no legal leg to stand on.
Jews still in Algeria: my figure of 50 came from ‘Jewish Communities of the World’, published by the World Jewish Congress (1996). The figure is most probably less now.


  • According to Gilbert Meynier, it is not at all certain that the 28 Muslims were killed by Jews – it was mostly the work of the French army:

    “Par ailleurs, il est probable que, si un bilan lourd de mai 1956 est avéré (là, je redis que la consultation des registres de décès sera d’un apport important), il fut redevable, de manière plausible, à une répression de l’armée française/d’ultras européens, qui a continué dans les jours suivants; ce ne fut donc, à coup sûr, pas spécifiquement une répression menée par les Juifs, même si, les 12 et 13 mai – c’est, là, avéré –, des Juifs ont pu y être impliqués. L’éventuelle lourdeur du bilan se réfère à des événements postérieurs : la Dépêche de Constantine continue pendant plusieurs jours à évoquer des actions de l’armée française à Constantine.”

  • In mid 1956 the F.L.N tryed to force the jews of Constantin in the east of Algeria to take part in the revolution which they refused, the the F.L.Nbegan to attack the jews mainly on Sabbath, at the time the jewish comunity was orgenized and well armd, after the warnd the arabs to stop the agresion against them which the arabs refusedto apply, the jewish armd groups reposted very strongly by attacking the arab quarters leaving behind them 28 dead and many ijures and since then the jews left peacefully till theire leaving for FRANCE. tHIS WAS A LESSON TO THE ARABS AFTER THE MASSACRE IN 1934

  • Hi Marie-Aude
    Thanks for your comment. I think you are a little unfair to say that by accepting French nationality, the Jews made it harder for Muslims to improve their status.
    According to Michel Abitbol’s ‘Le passe d’une discorde’ p163) French nationality was open to both Jews and Muslims – as long as they agreed to submit to French personal law.

  • As far as I know, it is recognized by historians that the Bushnaq – Backri affair was just a pretext, as was also the slapping.
    The real goal of the conquest of algeria was to take the treasure of the Dey, which disappeared directly in the private coffer of the King (not in the State’s one).

    It is true to say that all Jews accepted French nationality. And also true to say that, as all other French colons, they rejected throught their vote the possibility to open a better status for Muslims in Algeria.

    French colons intrumentalized Jewish commnunity, and Berber community, against the Arabic one. Divide to better reign. A part of the current struggles of Algeria comes from here.


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